Color, 1999, 93m.
Directed by William Malone
Starring Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Chris Kattan, Jeffrey Combs
Warner (most territories), EuroVideo (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany RB/R2 HD/PAL), Three Wolves Ltd. (Blu-ray) (UK R2 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD5.1
An alternately reverent and grating twist on the old William Castle popcorn classic, House on Haunted Hill transports the 1958 storyline into the postmodern horror era with some success, at least for its first half. The film turned out to be an unexpected Halloween money-maker for the new horror-oriented Dark Castle (headed by Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis), prompting a spate of new Castle remakes including Thir13en Ghosts (or however you feel like spelling it).
In the astoundingly gory opening sequence which should have landed this movie an NC-17 rating in the US, a Gothic asylum run by the sadistic Dr. Vannacutt (Combs) goes straight to hell when the patients revolt and decide to practice dissection on their medical care providers. Fast forward several decades later as the house’s current owner, snide prankster/millionaire Steven Price (Rush), decides to use the creepy setting to host a birthday party for his bitchy wife, Evelyn (Janssen). The party’s gimmick, according to the invitation, is a reward of one million dollars to every person who manages to survive the night. However, apart from neurotic caretaker Watson Pritchett (Kattan, providing some surprisingly good comic relief), none of the guests seem to be the ones Price invited. Pretty soon the house seems to have other ideas of how to throw a party, and even Price’s dapper party gifts of loaded guns don’t seem to be much use against a horde of irate ghosts.
On a visual level, this spookfest from helmer William Malone is quite impressive (though he would improve with both Parasomnia and his superlative episode of Masters of Horror), and unlike the same year's disastrous remake of The Haunting, this house really is creepy. Technical credits are all impressive, with Don Davis (The Matrix) in particular delivering a fascinating experimental music score. The Brothers Quay-inspired opening credits are striking as well, and horror fans should get a big kick out of the sick little scene added after the end credits. On the other hand, too much of the film focuses on characters wandering up and down corridors... and up and down again... and so on. The level of profanity is also distracting, with expletives failing to compensate for the fact that all of the original film's wit has been drained away. The biggest problem, however, is the avalanche of highly unconvincing and unfrightening special effects that bombard the viewer during the climax, though the filmmakers at least had the relative restraint to save this display for the end rather than plastering it all over the entire film (again, think of The Haunting). As for the performers, Janssen is great fun to watch as always, though Rush is way too nasty and bitter for such an urbane role. Ali Larter (Final Destination) and the then-ubiquitous Taye Diggs make a decent heroic couple, while Bridgette Wilson turns up all too briefly as a nosy reporter who uncovers the ghosts in the film’s creepiest scene.
Not surprisingly, Warner’s DVD is a powerhouse. From the startling animated menus to the perfect widescreen transfer, this is a class act all the way. As in the theatre, the thunderous surround mix often renders the whispered dialogue completely unintelligible, so consider using that English subtitle option on your DVD remote before disturbing the neighbours. The disc contains three outstanding deleted scenes (well, four, technically); for once, this isn’t just useless filler, as it introduces an entirely new character played by Debbie Mazar. The best of these is a Fulciesque zombie attack in the basement, but the discarded epilogue also offers a nasty twist on the fate of the house itself. A twenty-minute featurette, Tale of Two Houses, focuses on the numerous comparisons between the Castle and Malone versions, with a few cursory interview bits thrown in to make it all seem official. More illuminating is the audio commentary by Malone, which expounds upon the difficulties of remaking a drive-in classic and the laborious special effects and production design required for the film. He’s quite good company, really, and hopefully this won’t be his last horror special edition on DVD. The ‘58 and ‘99 trailers are also included, with the latter very awkwardly reedited to remove references to a giveaway contest conducted during the film’s theatrical run. To round it all of, you also get some DVD-ROM content (an essay and web links) and a very strange option called “The Chamber,” which simulates a bizarre David Lynch-inspired sequence in the film. The German Blu-ray is an fine presentation from Warner's broadcast HD master with the theatrical trailer, but avoid the UK Blu-ray at all costs as it only features an atrocious upscale of the DVD.